The final day of the main conference began with two highly anticipated panel discussions featuring three veterans from the Wounded Warriors Project and six Medicare Advantage members. Here are highlights from these morning sessions:

Wounded Warriors provide their perspective on health care and how to better serve the veteran population

Although there are more than 18 million living veterans in the United States, only nine million are enrolled in Veterans Affairs (VA). The other half seek care via Medicare, Medicaid, and other plans, said John Boerstler, chief veterans experience officer, Veterans Experience Office, Department of Veterans Affairs, who moderated the panel discussion.

Danielle Green, a U.S. Army veteran, said that women veterans are the fastest growing population within the VA and Wounded Warriors and that many of them receive treatment in the private sector. Green said that the VA system has improved over the 19 years since she was injured in 2004 by a rooftop grenade in Iraq that led to the loss of her left arm. Back then the VA was not equipped to deal with the needs of women veterans. In fact, many of the providers didn’t know that women served in war. They needed to educate people within the system and explain the needs of women veterans.

Indeed, when she returned to civilian life, she and her husband tried for years to conceive but it wasn’t until she left the male-dominated VA and sought care from a female gynecologist that she was finally able to become pregnant. “She knew what was happening and 90-days later I became pregnant and now my son is nine years old. We need more female care providers that understand the female anatomy,” she said.

Fortunately, she said, there are now initiatives being developed to address women veterans’ biggest needs, including reproductive care, but both Green and Boerstler agree there is still a long way to go to truly provide for their care.

Sal Gonzalez, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who was injured in Iraq in 2004 and lost his leg, initially sought out care at VA for a prosthetic but found providers were only used to dealing with geriatric amputee patients. They were cautious of spending taxpayer dollars, so they didn’t share information about new technology on the market and instead made legs that were not very mobile. “I gave the VA three opportunities and then I went to a civilian guy in Nashville.” His state-of-the-art prosthetic allows him to remain active and do everything he wants to do. “I refuse to let anything hold me back.”

Nick Morrison, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, credited the Wounded Warrior Project for the life he lives today. Unlike Gonzalez and Green, Morrison doesn’t suffer a physical injury. His involves a traumatic brain injury, a back injury, and nerve damage in both legs. “You can’t see it but nonetheless it’s there. And my experience coming home was very difficult to transition to relearn how to be a civilian again. I’m grateful you are here to listen to us. I want to shed light on our experience and improve it for the next generation who will go through the pipeline,” he said.

Morrison said he spent 10 years suffering and tried various forms of therapy before he found the Wounded Warriors Project and its Warrior Care Network, which involves a partnership with four academic medical universities. Within three weeks of participating in the program and joining therapy sessions to help with mental health, Morrison said he began to heal and was able to accept what he had been through. “For the first time in my life, I was able to obtain a level of grace so I could move forward. Five years ago, I was 135 pounds, not sleeping, not eating, it got to the point my bowels stopped working. I had chosen a path of death by a thousand cuts. It got to the point I stopped talking and so just the fact I am talking to you today I hope is a testament in and of itself to how awesome this program is. In my opinion, Wounded Warrior Project is the best option for veterans healing and for veterans being able to become civil again,” he said.

However, he said many veterans are still suffering from the trauma of war and the need is still great. “There will be another generation that will need services of VA and Wounded Warriors project and we have to do better,” Morrison said.

MA members on benefits that matter, plan satisfaction

One of our most popular sessions returned this year with a panel featuring Medicare Advantage (MA) members to find out what they really think about program offerings so plans can use the information to improve the member experience.

The panel, moderated by Kathleen Ellmore, cofounder and managing partner of Engagys, featured six seniors, five of whom were enrolled in various MA plans offered by UnitedHealthcare. The sixth panelist was a member of a Humana MA plan.  They offered their thoughts on Stars (only one heard of Star ratings), the main factors that caused them to join the plan (coverage for eyeglasses, medication copays, primary care doctor within the network, and PPO plan allowed members to visit specialists without referrals).

The Humana member said she was first enrolled in Aetna and UnitedHealthcare but switched over the years due to medication costs and the physician network. She has been very satisfied since she joined the AARP United Healthcare plan. One of the benefits is a home visit each month by a doctor to check on her vitals and medications.

Panelists appreciate Silver Sneakers as well as additional benefits being added to plans each year, and three were delighted by the stipend plans provide to pay for over-the-counter drugs and other items, although one was disappointed one member got more money than she receives.

However, plans have room for improvement, they said. Suggestions include:

  • Stop inundating seniors with mail or at least cut down on how much is sent each year. “My file cabinet is full, and I am trying to go green. It’s annoying when a lot of the stuff comes that I already know, or I could find it online if I go to the site.”
  • Give people a choice whether they want to receive communication digitally, via paper, or both.
  • Offer comprehensive dental benefits.